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Oct 19, 2016

Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country – a sad, marvellous historical canon

The Wave Hill Walk Off is commemorated widely but what happened to Gurindji people on their own country before the Walk Off is less well known. A new publication, told bilingually in Gurindji and English, shares what Gurindji people want the world to know about what happened. Greg Dickson reviews Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country.

The Wave Hill Walk Off is commemorated widely for its role in Aboriginal workers’ rights and land rights but the history leading up to it is less well known and by no means less significant. When Patrick Dodson delivered his maiden speech to the senate earlier this year, he explicitly mentioned the plight of the Gurindji people in the lead up the famous Wave Hill Walk Off:

After a century of theft, violence, of dehumanising exploitation, of structural and institutional racism, of a stolen generation policy, genocidal in its intent and impact, this leader was ready to move forward, to build a better place. Vincent [Lingiari] held a vision for his people’s freedom.

What happened prior to the Walk Off is history that non-Aboriginal people typically haven’t wanted to know. It is grim, shameful and not to be celebrated. These stories are now reaching a wider audience with a new publication, Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country, released earlier this year through Aboriginal Studies Press. This remarkable book documents Gurindji history prior to the 1966 Walk Off and features 34 tales told straight the mouths of Gurindji people. Those who were witness to events described or whose direct forebears were witnesses. It is the true history of Gurindji people, and titled as such: Yijarni, in Gurindji, means ‘truly’.

Yijarni is not only remarkable as a carefully curated interpretation of Gurindji history. It is history that has been told, and published, in the language that Gurindji people tell the stories in. The use of the Gurindji language – producing a truly bilingual publication – is what distinguishes it from any similar publications.

Gurindji is now an endangered language. Widely spoken at the time of the Wave Hill Walk Off, younger Gurindji people still understand it, but typically speak a new language, Gurindji Kriol, which systematically mixes traditional language with North Australian Kriol. (There are glimpses of this mixing in a number of the volume’s narratives). Today, Gurindji kids are less likely to understand Gurindji, meaning Yijarni is not just a testament to Gurindji history, but also one to of Australia’s many endangered Indigenous languages.

The volume introduces itself comparatively gently, with senior elders Violet Wadrill, Dandy Danbayarri and Jimmy Wavehill sharing stories that predate the arrival of Europeans. From there, readers are plunged into low points of Australian history, as we follow the Gurindji into The Killing Times. As Australia matures, more and more of us are ready to hear this history and as troublesome as it is, it is strangely reassuring to have Yijarni be a vessel for Gurindji people to share these stories – which they want known – to the reader, in their own words, on their own terms.

This section is prefaced by Ronnie Wavehill (who provides several narratives in Yijarni):

Kartiya [Europeans] didn’t try to like ngumpin [Gurindji/Aboriginal people]. They just shot them. What I’ve recorded here, well that’s how they started off. They just massacred them on their own country.”

Without going into detail here, Wavehill and several countrymen provide raw and graphic detail of atrocities:

“… nyawa nyamu kartipa-lu kujilirli yuwani ngumpit walik-kujarra; murlanginyi ngumpit nyila na ngurna-nga yurrk-ma malu. Nyawa karlangkarlayit Seale, nyawa Warlaku-la, karrayarra nyawa Marungkuwarraj all round; kula wanyjika. Nyawa-ma kuyuwan-ta-rni ngumpit-ta, turlakap-nginyi. Nyila na ngurna-nga yurrk-ma malu.”

[I’m going to tell that story of how kartiya massacred the Aboriginal people of this country, everywhere all around here. There are still Aboriginal bones from the shooting that occurred west of here, up at Seale Gorge, Warlakula and east of here at Marungkuwarraj, everywhere. This is what I am going to talk about.]

Violet Wadrill describes a massacre which occurred at the yards near Warluk, to her granddaughter Leah Leaman [Penny Smith 2014]
Violet Wadrill describes a massacre which occurred at the yards near Warluk, to her granddaughter Leah Leaman [Penny Smith 2014]

Yet Yijarni provides a broad canon of Gurindji history. Other stories and themes are less grim, discussing population movements, floods, first sightings of an aeroplane and a 1929 search for a downed plane, the Kookaburra. There’s a lovely example of inter-cultural understanding of custom and law as Gurindji elders show sympathy for an Afghan’s request for Halal meat preparation sometime in the mid 1900s.

Stolen Generation stories are given space, with several stories from the generally less heard-from aspect of Aboriginal people who witnessed removals and were left behind:

“Nyilarra-ma limilimitkarra-la, karu-ma nyila pilyingpilying-ma nyila-rni ngamayi-la. ‘Kula-rna yanku murnungku-ma nyila-rla’… Lungkarra-julu, ‘Waa,’ turtkarra turtkarra ngamayi-lu-ma kuya-rla, turtkarra, turtkarra, warrpa turt. Ngamayi-lu nyawa.”

[The children would be hiding behind their mothers when they came. ‘I’m not going with that policeman’ … Kid crying, ‘wah’ – they grabbed the kid, the mother clutching onto her child while the little one would try to hold onto her skirt. These were our mothers.] – Dandy Danbayarri

We also hear first-hand from one of the children who was taken. Insights into station life, including appalling conditions leading up to the Wave Hill Walk Off, and unpleasant recounts of police operations among Gurindji people round out a comprehensive, troubling history.

Despite the sobriety of Yijarni, underpinning it are reasons to celebrate. One is the remarkable fact that Gurindji people have emerged from that history and retained any semblance of goodwill. But goodwill exists and about two dozen Gurindji people extended it generously to the editors and translators of the volume – linguists Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins – who were entrusted with the stories and instructed to share them with the world, so we can all know.

Recording information about a massacre which occurred at Wirrilu on Wave Hill Station [Brenda L Croft 2014]
Recording information about a massacre which occurred at Wirrilu on Wave Hill Station [Brenda L Croft 2014]

The book’s genesis and production is truly a collaborative and community-embedded one. Firstly, the stories have been documented and meticulously translated – work spanning decades and involving several dozen people. As the book came together, local artists produced a series of artworks – many depicted in Yijarni – as depictions and reflections of various stories. Elders took local rangers to significant sites, contextualising the stories for younger Gurindji people. And Brenda L Croft – an artist and art curator with a CV as impressive as they come, who is herself of Gurindji heritage – contributed heavily to the volume’s production, including some fantastic photographic documentation.

Gurindji people, like every Aboriginal group in Australia, have an incredible canon of history, but such canons are typically kept intimate, narratives passed between insiders. Thanks to this remarkable collaborative and community effort, all of us can now share in what Gurindji people want us to know about what happened to them. And not just an interpretation, but maintaining a truly emic perspective, thanks to the extraordinary efforts that went into maintaining the Gurindji language as the medium of Gurindji history.

Bill Shorten and Ronnie Wavehill at the local launch of Yijarni, Kalkarindji, NT. [Jenny Green, August 2016]
Bill Shorten and Yijarni contributor Ronnie Wavehill at the local launch of Yijarni, Kalkarindji, NT. [Jenny Green, August 2016]

Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country is available from Aboriginal Studies Press. A panel discussion with the editors and Gurindji representatives is being held at ANU, Canberra on Thursday October 20. See here for details.

Win a copy! Fully (sic) has one copy of Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country to give away. To win, simply email us at fullysicblog at gmail dot com or direct message us on Twitter (@fullysicblog) with your name, postal address, a contact number and tell us which state or territory Gurindji country sits within. Entries close Friday October 21 at Midnight, AEDT (Australian addresses only). (Congratulations to Zoë Ambler of NSW who won our giveaway competition!)

Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country [Front cover]

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One thought on “Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country – a sad, marvellous historical canon

  1. Daly

    Thank you for my Christmas presents!